The Four Players Who Will Likely Gain Election to the Baseball Hall of Fame This Year, and Mike Piazza’s Long-Shot

By: Brian Mangan

[Ed. I know that everybody and their mother has weighed in on the Hall of Fame in the last few weeks (and have every January for the last five years), but this is our first foray into the topic.  In an extremely interesting year for the Hall, we are pleased to share our thoughts.]

It is January in New York, and in the sports world that means a few things: The Knicks are struggling, the Jets have some sort of Rex Ryan drama swirling and, for us baseball fans, it is the time of year that we debate the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot (“Ballot”).

Each year at around this time (beginning in December, actually) die-hard baseball fans, staring out their windows at snow and longing for their National Pastime, take a look at the ballot for the Baseball Hall of Fame and debate the merit of the players eligible to be elected to the Hall. As part and parcel of that discussion, fans attempt to prognosticate who the actual electorate (the Baseball Writers Association of America or BBWAA) will actually vote in.

This article is a look at the results of all the balloting that have been released publicly so far, brief review tendencies apparent from prior ballots, and a review of Mike Piazza’s individual Hall of Fame chances.

When I started this article a week ago, it was supposed to be solely a look at one phenomenal tool, the Baseball Think Factory Hall of Fame Ballot Collecting Gizmo (which we do discuss below). However, as life has intervened, and we have gotten closer to the day that the Hall of Fame votes are announced, my thoughts have turned more and more toward the chances of election of one Michael Joseph Piazza, the greatest hitting catcher of all time.

Current Factors Affecting the BBWAA Ballots

It is no secret that the past few years, in particular, have been frustrating and disappointing for the BBWAA and the Hall of Fame (“Hall”). In addition to general disagreements over valuation of players (in particuar, the differences of opinion between “old school” sportswriters reliance on stats like wins and RBI versus the “newer school” sabermetric thinking which looks to more advanced statistics) the BBWAA electorate (and, as a result, the Hall itself) has struggled recently with the issues surrounding players with ties to steroids and other performance enhancing drugs (“PED’s”).

There is no greater example of this than one of the best players of all time, Barry Bonds. Last year was Barry Bonds’ first year on the Ballot. Barry Bonds is fourth all time in Wins Above Replacement. He is baseball’s all time home run leader (762), all time walks leader (2558), eight time Gold Glove winner and seven time Most Valuable Player. He did not get elected to the Hall.

Not only did Bonds not get into the Hall, but he failed to do so in spectacular fashion, garnering only 36.2% of the vote, due, of course, to his connections to steroids and PED’s.

The debate over PED’s has been raging for years, and the arguments have been covered from nearly every concievable angle (plus some inconcievable angles). This author, for one, believes that players who used PED’s in the 1990’s and at other times prior to the banning of PED’s from baseball – in a time when usage was open, and the league, the owners, and the media were all complicit in their use – should not be punished. I believe strongly that Major League Baseball as a whole was as responsible for use as any individual player, and that to punish a player post hoc in this fashion is unfair.

FN: You can draw distinctions forever, if you like: how much do you discredit someone who was caught with a corked bat only once? Do steroid-aided hitters get a credit because they had to face steroid-aided pitchers? How much do steroids actually enhance performance? Do they at all? Is modifying your body through the use of steroids any different than through human growth hormone? How about altering yourself with amphetatmines, as was rampant throughout baseball in the last century? How about tylenol? What of the dozens of pitchers who are only in the major leagues today because they had successful Tommy John surgery – effectively Frankensteining their elbows in exchange for the ability to continue pitching when 30 years ago they would be out of the game?

I don’t think we’ll ever know who used or how often or what effect it had on the game, especially with regard to those who used PED’s fifteen years ago, before the issue was out in the open.  Therefore, I’m not sure how you can punish (if punishing were even the right course of action).

What We Can Expect from 2014’s Ballots

To that end, Baseball Think Factory, my favorite baseball-related website, does an incredible job collecting BBWAA Ballots as they are published online and aggregating them, counting the totals and letting the readers know how the players on the Ballot are doing thus far in a place called the Hall of Fame Ballot Collecting Gizmo.

However, before we get into the actual figures, one thing: the results on the Gizmo are skewed because they count only the Ballots that writers choose to publish publicly. The members of the BBWAA are not required to publicly publish their Ballots or justification therefor, and most do not. Therefore, the votes that are tabulated by the Gizmo tend to be a slightly younger, more tech savvy group than the electorate at large.

Because of this, the Gizmo tends to slightly over-represent the votes that will be received by players who are sabermetric darlings, supported by the newer school of thought and sabermetric analysis, while at the same time tending to under-represent players who would be favored by older-school sportswriters.

I took a look at the Gizmo for 2012 and 2013 (this year is 2014) and compared the results of the Gizmo to the votes that the player would ultimately receive. For the players on this year’s Ballot, I separated them into three groups, depending on whether they can expect their vote percentage to rise or fall compared to the public numbers.

Overall, the Gizmo is quite accurate. For most players, the figure reflected on the final Gizmo was no more than a few percentage points away from the total that they would ultimately receive. Also, the Gizmo represents a very close estimate to the total number of votes which would ultimately be cast for the group of players as a whole (in 2013, the Gizmo was right on the money, projecting only -0.17 on average less than the total).

Here is what you can expect if you are some of the major players on the ballot (feel free to skip the data and scroll down for the conclusions):

Overrepresented by the Gizmo’s Results in 2012 and 2013

Craig Biggio: -1.9 in 2013
Barry Bonds: -9.2 in 2013
Roger Clemens: -6.7
Rafael Palmiero: -4.1, +1.1
Mike Piazza: -2.5
Tim Raines: -7.6, -1.4
Alan Trammell: -4, 0.3

Underrepresented by the Gizmo

Edgar Martinez: +0.3 in 2013, +4.1 in 2012
Don Mattingly: +4.4 in 2013, +7.7 in 2012
Mark McGwire: +2.5, +1.9
Jack Morris: +8.4, +7.9
Lee Smith: +9.7, +4.1
Larry Walker: +5.1, +4.7
Bernie Williams: +3.3, +9.6

Negligible Effect

Jeff Bagwell: +0.3 in 2013, -0.8 in 2012
Fred McGriff: +0.6, +0.3
Dale Murphy: 0, +2.3
Curt Schilling: -0.4
Sammy Sosa: -0.9
David Wells: 0.4

Although there is a temptation to draw conclusions, aside from Bonds and Clemens, for the most part it appears to be just noise and individual choices based on the players themselves. Also, as you can see, the Gizmo will sometimes project a significant difference in the gaps for a particular player from year to year (Mattingly lost 3.4% support from the unpublished ballots between 2012 and 2013; Tim Raines lost 6% year to year).

With this information in hand, I went ahead and took a look at the current Balloting results and adjusted the players with an estimate of how their overall vote % may differ from the Gizmo. Maddux, Glavine, and Thomas look safe, while Biggio has a 50/50 chance and lightning-rod Jack Morris ends up on the outside looking in. Piazza and Bagwell, while they appear to fall short on this Ballot, seem sure of election in the next couple of years.

  2014 2014  Est. 
  Gizmo  Proj.  Change
Maddux 100 100  
Glavine 97.3 97.3  
Thomas 92.5 92.5  
Biggio 80.1 78.2 -1.9
Piazza 71.2 68.7 -2.5
Bagwell 63 63 0
Morris 59.6 67.6 8
Raines 58.9 54.4 -4.5
Bonds 42.5 33.5 -9
Clemens 41.8 34.8 -7
Schilling 39.7 39.2 -0.5
Mussina 30.8 30.8  
Martinez 25.3 27.8 2.5
Smith 24 31 7
Trammell 24 22 -2
Kent 15.1 15.1  
McGriff 13.7 14.2 0.5
Walker 10.3 15.3 5
McGwire 10.3 12.3 2
Sosa 8.2 7.2 -1
Palmiero 6.2 4.2 -2
Mattingly 5.5 11 5.5
Rose 0.7 0.7  

For the players above, my rough estimate as to how their figures might change between now and tomorrow changes nothing – Biggio is still in, while Piazza, Bagwell, and Morris are still out.

Does Mike Piazza Have a Chance?

All of this brings me back to Mike Piazza, the greatest hitting catcher of all time and a player who will undoubtedly be elected to the Hall of Fame at some point. The question remains: will he be elected this year?

Despite the above balloting figures – and maybe this is my Blue and Orange showing a little bit – I still believe that there exists a slight chance for Piazza to reach that magical 75% threshold for election. As a reminder, Matt Snyder of CBSSports.com laid out Piazza’s “bare essentials” as such:

Over the course of 16 years, Piazza hit .308/.377/.545 (143 OPS+) with 344 doubles, 427 homers, 1335 RBI and 1048 runs.

He won the 1993 NL Rookie of the Year, made 12 All-Star Games, won 10 Silver Sluggers and finished in the top 10 of MVP voting seven times. Though he never won the MVP, he finished as the runner-up twice and was a third-place finisher one time.

As of right now, there are 146 full ballots collected by the Gizmo. There are approximately 600 total ballots each year, leaving 454 ballots outstanding. In order to get from his present 71.2% to the required 75%, Piazza will need to receive 76.8% of the votes still outstanding.

It is a long shot, to be sure, but not impossible. Here’s why:

1. Piazza’s representation on the Gizmo has increased a whopping 11% between last year and this year, and in the last few days I have seen him as high as 73%. There are still a lot of ballots to be counted, and he only needs to receive barely more than 75% of those votes to reach his goal (the aforementioned 76.8%).  Player’s shares of the votes tend to increase over time, but a) Piazza has bucked a recent trend of stagnant votes and b) his increase far outstrips any projection.

Nate Silver / NYTimes

2. Voters might be softening somewhat on the steroid issue – not much, but enough to potentially budge Piazza’s totals 1 or 2% upward.

The best contemporary to project Piazza is probably none other than Jeff Bagwell.  Both Bagwell and Piazza undoubtedly have the numbers for the Hall of Fame, and both were suspected of PED use although no evidence has emerged implicating either player (at least, not to the same level as contemporaries such as Bonds, Clemens, Palmiero, etc.).  In the last three years, Jeff Bagwell’s vote totals went from 56% in 2012 to 59.6% in 2013, while he is presently balloting at 63% on the Gizmo – a figure 3.7% higher than last season.

Also promising for Piazza, Bagwell’s gap between the Gizmo and the Actual totals also moved in the right direction. In 2012 Bagwell ended up 0.8% lower than the Gizmo projected, while last year he was 0.3 above the Gizmo.  This indicates no (or less) bias between the sabermetric types and the old school types who did not release their ballots, and bodes well for the final tally.

3. This is anecdotal (for now), but I believe that many voters chose not to vote for Piazza last year based on their belief that he was not a “first ballot” Hall of Famer – a distinction which itself has rankled many feathers in baseball fan circles. Regardless of whether or not the distinction should exist, it does, and some voters who did not vote for Piazza last year will be checking off his name this year.  Much of that effect is undoubtedly reflected in the above total increase, but I believe that it may also cause his gap between the Gizmo and the Actual to decrease or flip the other way.

4. The major New York outlets have not released their ballots yet.  Piazza is likely to get a little boost from the large New York outlets.

If Piazza can end the publicly-counted Ballots at around 73-74%, and can flip that -2.5% differential to neutral or slightly favorable when the “old school” guys get together to acknowledge the greatest hitting catcher ever, Piazza will have a puncher’s chance.

There are only a handful of catchers in the Hall of Fame (http://www.baseball-almanac.com/hof/hofstca.shtml ). It sure would be nice to add to that figure.

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Brian Mangan is the co-founder of the Read Zone and is a die-hard Mets fan and attorney in New York City.  

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